Types of Military Drones: The Best Technology Available Today

Types of Military Drones
Written by Jack Brown

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Drones, otherwise known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are aircrafts which are remotely-piloted, eliminating the need for a pilot to be on board during a given flight. In the civilian life, drones are a common occurrence and hardly ever will a week pass before you set your eyes on one. In the armed services, there are many types of military drones in use. It is a fast growing field of technology, and its impact on the world will likely continue to increase, whether we like it or not.

Drones have an array of applications ranging from being mere hobby gadgets, to their increased use in aerial photography and cinematography, to intelligence, mapping, reconnaissance, rescue missions, and targeting destinations.

However, it is their use in military operations that are of interest to us today. As a matter of fact, drone technology started in the military and nowadays there are several types of military drones that will blow your mind. In this article, we will provide an outline of this area of drone technology.

Military commercial drones

UAVs can be used for autonomous flights, this being based on pre-programmed flight plans, or through the help of more complex dynamic automation systems. It is important to appreciate the increasing role of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in solving certain conflicts. Also, the execution of high-profile attacks is a very important task for some modern day military planners.

This article will explore a brief history of the use of drones in military applications. The article will examine these military drones based on various categories, such as based on their size, their use, and their complexity.

A brief history of the use of drones in military operations

The name drone was derived originally from the male bee which is characterized by a specific buzzing sound. This sound is quite deep and sometimes annoying. This could have been a similar scenario for the initial drones but the modern day drones have evolved and the main trait that named them (the buzzing) is barely noticeable now. This is why the industry prefers to call them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles now.

You can find out much more about these great gadgets in our article – What is a drone.

Use of drones in military operations

The idea of having an unmanned aircraft, was born during WWI when both the US and France were working on developing an automatic airplane. In the end, France was the one who actually managed to put together this sort of contraption.  The device was called the Voisin BN3 biplane and was able to fly for about 100km.

The interest to develop unmanned aerial vehicles was further sparked during the WWII when various parties suffered big losses occasioned by the reconnaissance aircraft. A need to develop unmanned aerial vehicles that would do away with the pilot or an observer was necessitated by the bad turn of events. Basically, they wanted to save people’s lives, so that when planes were shot down no one had to perish.

Although this technology was under development for many years, the first time when drones were actually used for observation was in 1973, during the Vietnam War.

In the modern world, UAVs make a lot of sense, especially on the battlefield. They are highly convenient since you don’t have to worry about deploying people behind enemy lines since no one will be on board in case the device gets destroyed.

However, these conveniences do not come without controversy. The ethics behind these aerial vehicles is often a cause of fierce political debate. Much of this debate revolves around the fact that these drones simply make it too easy to carry out military strikes. If military commanders can simply send a drone to do the work of their own troops, they may be blind to the actual consequences of their own warfare. This can lead to a type of attack where the ramifications and collateral damage are not fully known. In some cases, this can even include civilian casualties.

The usage of drones in military operations will certainly continue to be a hot button issue for the foreseeable future. However, for the sake of this article, we will focus on providing an outline of this military technology, as opposed to debating the morals and ethics involved. This is surely a very important issue that will continue to receive a lot of attention from governments across the world.

Big military drones

It is good to appreciate that many people in the field prefer to use the term Unmanned Aircraft Systems since a UAV is usually part of a system made out of:

  • one or more drones destined for observation – these are equipped with a series of sensors,
  • ground control stations – these are the bases where the drones are controlled. These stations control the drones and receive data from sensors
  • The radio connection that is established between the drones and the ground control stations.

The FAA has adopted the UAS – Unmanned Aircraft System acronym, to capture the complex systems which include ground stations and other elements, and not only the actual aerial vehicles.

Categories of the military drones

UAVs in the military are usually categorized based on their weight, range, speed as well as their specific capabilities. As with drones in general, these tend to come in all shapes and sizes depending on the function they are intended to serve, and it can be quite interesting to examine different types of these aerial vehicles. 

Military drones categories

NATO troupes have developed a classification system for drones, and they are as follows:

Class I (< 150 kg): micro, mini or small drones

There are several types of Class I drones that can be used to perform Computerized Command, Control, Communication & Information solutions. These drones are very useful in the military as they can provide ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance).

Class I drones can include micro, mini or small drones.

Class I Military drone

A good example of a micro drones in Class I is the FULMAR fixed wing micro-UAV which has a maximum takeoff weight of about 20 kg. It was developed by Thales and Wake engineering and it has an endurance of 12 hours and a range of about 90km.

The top speed of this UAV is 100km/h and the maximum altitude it can get to is 4000m with a payload of 8 kilograms. You can readily integrate the Fulmar UAV with the Thales maritime as well as into land border surveillance solutions.

This drone is usually launched by a small catapult with a recovery net and it can be deployed from the land or from a ship’s deck. You will be amazed by its short deployment time of only 30 minutes and its ability to land on water.

If you want more information about the best consumer drones that are available in micro models, by reading our article about micro drones.

Class II (150-600 kg ): tactical

The tactical UAVs are specially designed to be used in the organic battalion level or in Special Forces. These UAVs are great assets for purposes of medium range surveillance.

They have a vital role in filling the gap between the range of functions of the short-range micro-UAVs and the strategic UAVS, which comprise of the MALE and HALE. These drones achieve this by having a combination of flexibility, endurance as well as ruggedness. Basically, they are a good middle ground between small drones and strategic drones. 

Class II military drones

These drones have been of use in situational analysis and awareness to offer protection and surveillance. They are also used in target acquisition and the assessment of some damage based on a given force.

The most sophisticated tactical ISTAR system on the whole globe right now is the Watchkeeper, which was developed by Thales. It is also the largest UAS programme in Europe. As a matter of fact, the Watchkeeper platform is the only large UAV in Europe that is certified to fly in civilian airspace, and this even includes urban areas.

Class III (>600 kg): strategic

The Class III UAVs are usually referred to as Medium Altitude Long Endurance, MALE systems as well as High Altitude Long Endurance UAVs, HALEs. The MALEs are especially ideal for surveillance as well as reconnaissance on a non-threatening area.

They have a wide range of applications. These include being used to determine the position of the enemy or the movement of certain populations that are not involved into a conflict. They have state of the art infrastructure and they have also been used to compile lists of targets.

Class III military drone

Some renowned MALEs include the Reaper/Predator, and the family of drones called Anka and Heron just to name a few. One of the few HALEs available right now is the Global Hawk Family.

Classification based on functions

UAVs can also be classified based on the specific roles they are meant to play in particular military operations. Based on these qualifications, we have the following UAVs:

  1. Target and decoy UAVs – these can be used to provide ground as well as aerial gunnery at a target, and can simulate an enemy missile or aircraft.
  2. Reconnaissance UAVs – these are used to provide intelligence on the battlefield.
  3. Combat UAVs – these have been used to provide attack capability for some high-risk missions.
  4. Research and Development UAVs – these have been used to further develop UAV technologies that can be integrated into UAVs that have been deployed in the field.
  5. Civil and Commercial UAVs – these are those that have been designed to be used in civil and commercial applications.

Classification based on autonomy of the UAVs

UAVs could also be classified based on their autonomy, with more advanced ones are aiming for total autonomy. This classification will result in UAVs being grouped into different generations based on their autonomic capabilities.

Most of the early UAVs were referred to as drones since they were not as sophisticated being a mere radio controlled aircraft. They were controlled with the aid of a human pilot who was at times referred to as an operator. Some of the more sophisticated versions had built-in control and guidance systems to help them perform some low-level human pilot duties. Such duties included speed and flight path stabilization as well as simply prescribed navigation functions, just to name a few.

Drone controlled by man

Based on this, most of the early UAVs cannot be considered to be autonomous due to their total reliance on human control. As a matter of fact, the field of autonomy is an emerging field in the UAS and their crucial role in helping the military have battlefield-ready technology should be entertained. This autonomous technology is seen as something that is hoped to be included in the design of future military UAVs. The following classifications exists for with UAVs that make use of autonomous technology:

  1. Sensor fusion – these UAVs combine information sourced from different sensors for use on board the vehicle.
  2. Communication UAVs – these help in the handling of communication and coordination between multiple agents in the presence of incomplete and imperfect information.
  3. Motion planning aka Path Planning – these UAVs help in the determination of an optimal path for the vehicle to go in case it encounters certain obstacles.
  4. Trajectory generation UAVs – these UAVs have the ability to determine an optimal control maneuver in order to take to follow a given path or to go to from a given location to another.
  5. Task allocation and scheduling – these UAVs have the ability to determine the optimal distribution of several tasks among a group of specified agents in the event that there are time and equipment constraints.
  6. Cooperative tactics UAVs – these have the ability to formulate an optimal sequence as well as a spatial distribution of some activities between various agents with the goal of optimizing or maximizing the chance of success for a particular mission.

The level of autonomy opens the possibility of independent UAVs that would be able to reason like a human being – a smart UAV. This can be comparable to the development of artificial intelligence systems as witnessed in the 1980s and the early 1990s in various fields. Autonomy is continuing to develop now, and is hoped to continue as an extension of the control field.

The ultimate goal of autonomous technology is to develop a system that will replace the human pilot.

This is a growing field. But ultimately, the growth of this field will depend not only technology, but also the political climate. The ethics and morals of autonomous technology is constantly called into question when referring to military applications. Thus, the advancements in this type of drone technology will be highly dependent on political factors.

In conclusion

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles continue to be applied in various military operations. They are a growing field due to the high amount of convenience, and the ability to reduce casualties so drastically. Because of this, drones are enabling the execution of high profile missions across the world.

Their origin can be traced back to the WWI when the United States and France had the idea of developing an aircraft that had no human pilot on board, to be used in warfare. And then they were first used during the Vietnam War. From there, the applications and technological innovations continued to expand, as you can see by the vast array of drones that were outlined in this article.

The political factors surrounding the morals and ethics of unmanned aerial systems in military technology will always be hotly debated. However, purely from a technological standpoint, these drones are quite an impressive feat, and their impact on the world cannot be denied.   

Military drone

UAVs are part of a large system that is referred to as an Unmanned Aircraft System, a term which encompasses the whole system with the ground control and the sensors being factored in.

As you have seen throughout this article, there are several classes of drone and the separation is often based on weights, control range, as well as endurance. Military UAVs can also be classified based on the kind of operations they perform: whether it be target and decoy, reconnaissance, those developed for use in combat, as well as drones that are meant for research and development.

Basically, there are many types of drones and thus there are many ways for categorizing drones. This article has provided a summation of some of the ways we can group and organize this growing field of technology. But rest assured, there will be more categories and classes of drone as the drone industry continues to develop at such a breakneck speed.

The ultimate goal of a drone is to create a smart aircraft that will no longer require the human factor (AKA the drone pilots). However, for now, the technology has not reached this end goal. These hypothetical Unmanned Aircraft Systems have been predicted to play a vital role in the resolution of future conflicts. This is a fast growing field of technology, and it shows no signs of slowing anytime soon.

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About the author

Jack Brown

Jack is the Chief Pilot at bringing experience, expertise and knowledge in this quite new industry. He is a graduate of the Drone/UAV Pilot Training Certificate program and member of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Besides having all the necessary technical knowledge when it comes to drones, Jack and his team love to spend the time outside by the ocean, working on new features and teaching others how to pilot these amazing and exciting new robots.